The US is often dubbed the land of the free. As someone who was raised in the Middle East, arguably a place not as free, Americans have always seemed to me to be fiercely proud that the First Amendment of their Constitution protects the freedoms of press and of speech.
Many of the Americans I have met, both abroad and in the US, acknowledge that there are flaws with the electoral college and the healthcare system, but the redeeming quality is always their freedom of expression.
Imagine my surprise when during my first few months of living in the US, I discover that this freedom of expression is in fact often censored in an attempt to avoid alienation or offense – to the point where it becomes immobilizing. Now, the funny thing is that this censorship is almost always self-inflicted, a preemptive effort to evade any harsh critique or criticism.
This became clear to me after a discussion with five or six members of my cohort back in October.
“We should totally have Secret Santa!” I said. “It’s so much fun, and it’ll be a great way for everyone to get to know each other. We used to have it back home in the office every year.”
“I know; it is fun, but we can’t call it Secret Santa,” replied one of the girls.
“Why?” I replied, confused.
“Because some people might take offense to the Santa thing, so we could call it a holiday gift exchange or something,” she answered.
“Take offense? But back home we put up a Christmas tree in the office and sent out an email about Secret Santa and everyone loved it.”
Now, this might not seem like something of magnitude, but back home for me was Kuwait. I’m a Muslim Syrian who was working in Kuwait in the three years prior to coming to MIT. Kuwait is a Muslim country where over 70% of its resident population identify as Muslim. The people in my team were around 60% Muslim with the remaining 40% being either Hindu or Christian. If it didn’t offend us there, why would it be offensive in a country that congratulates itself on the freedom that it has? A country where during the month of December the roads and trees are decorated with beautiful twinkly lights and Michael Bublé croons from every crevice?
And to be honest ‘holiday gift exchange’ doesn’t have the whole alliteration thing going for it.
“It’s good to be more inclusive with these things,” she stated.
The others just passively acknowledged her comment and the conversation moved on to other matters.
I hadn’t realized that by naming a gift exchange carried out during a Christian holiday after a made-up Christian character, one would be excluding others – it’s not like by calling it Secret Santa only Christians would be able to participate. And so, I find myself confused by this faux freedom that Americans think sets them apart from others.
I believe that this stems largely from our increased online presence. Most of the thoughts and opinions that we share are no longer intimate and intended for a specific person or audience, instead, once posted, they spread to the vast dimensions of the Interweb, never to be fully retrieved once they have been cast out. This makes us vulnerable to attack, not only from close friends and family, but also by our cousin’s stepmother’s boss’s wife and other such random individuals.
And so, our online musings, especially in liberal circles, tend to lack a strong opinion sans qualifier. I have seen so many people either delete critical comments they have received from others or delete the entire post itself in fear of additional disapproval.
And this online self-defense mechanism has made its way into our day-to-day life, causing us to overthink issues that really do not deserve the time and energy that we put into them. Let’s really think about this. Why would the name “Secret Santa” offend anyone at all? It really shouldn’t be offensive. It’s called Secret Santa because Santa is the mythical creature that gifts good children on Christmas, and this particular activity that involves gift giving happens around Christmas time. That’s it. However, this is a difficult issue to address precisely because what offends some people might not always offend others. Offense is subjective, which is what makes this entire idea open to question.
Now, despite all this, I think it’s great if people want to be more inclusive and encompassing. However, I hope that we as a society aren’t repressing certain thoughts or feelings simply because we want to avoid criticism. If you want to go around wishing people, “Merry Christmas!” Wonderful! If you instead want to go around bellowing, “Happy Holidays!” Also fantastic.
Let’s not magnify every single term, expression, and designation to the point where we have created a culture of self-doubt and wavering, self-crippling action. Let’s not point fingers and say that this is too conservative or that is too liberal. Instead, let’s look at the bigger picture and see that people wishing each other a marvelous holiday season is a beautiful thing – regardless what term is used.
Wouldn’t you rather have someone smile and wish you “Merry Christmas” instead of having him or her overthink what to say to the point where the moment passes by? I know I would.